SNOW HILL – County officials delayed a decision regarding school bus monitoring cameras in an effort to get more information.
Following a public hearing for a bill that would authorize the use of school bus monitoring cameras in Worcester County, the Worcester County Commissioners voted 5-0 to table the issue. They want to know how much the program will cost the county and whether there’s an opportunity to share revenue from violations caught on camera with school bus drivers.
“We already have issues with the bus drivers,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said. “We certainly don’t want any more.”
Last month, the commissioners introduced enabling legislation that would allow the county to install school bus monitoring systems. The systems, which are similar to red light cameras, would be installed on school buses and would activate when bus lights activate to capture video of cars illegally passing the bus. The company would send the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office the video electronically and deputies would certify that a violation had occurred. Once they do that, they’ll provide BusPatrol with the vehicle’s ownership information.
Officials had countless questions, however, and asked that company representatives attend the next time the bill was up for discussion.
Richard Hetherington of BusPatrol joined Lt. Robert Trautman of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and Kim Heiser and Vince Tolbert from Worcester County Public Schools at this week’s commissioners meeting. Hetherington explained that BusPatrol outfitted each bus with cameras and then collected a $150 tech fee per bus per month.
“There is a tech fee for each bus to cover the equipment, which isn’t’ a cost that ever cones to the county,” he said. “The collected violation revenue covers that fee.”
Each violation results in a $250 fine, and Hetherington said that 85-90% of fines issued by BusPatrol are paid. If a bus camera doesn’t get any violations one month, the $150 tech fee rolls forward. Hetherington said that if there were tech fees left at the end of the five-year term, however, the county would not be required to pay. He’s confident there will be enough violations to cover tech fees in Worcester.
Violation revenues are split, with 60% going to BusPatrol and 40% going to the school system. The tech fees come out of the school system’s 40%, according to Hetherington.
“It seems really good for you but it doesn’t seem very good for us,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said.
Hetherington said BusPatrol was already working with numerous counties in Maryland. He added that in Cecil County, BusPatrol mailed out 250 violations in the month of May. He believes there will be even more violations in Worcester County.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom questioned the financial impact the program would have on the sheriff’s office, as staff there would be tasked with reviewing the videos sent by BusPatrol.
“We review it three levels in house before we send it over…,” Hetherington said. “It takes about a minute and a half to look at the video, determine if it’s a violation or not. If they approve it, it comes back to us, we mail it out to the violator and that’s the only real interaction they have.”
Tolbert told the commissioners the school system was interested in the camera system to increase student safety.
“The school system’s not looking at this as a revenue producer,” he said. “What we have is an issue, vehicles are passing stopped buses. This is to encourage people to stop running by stopped buses. The fee does roll forward but at the end of the agreement if there’s an outstanding balance they (BusPatrol) walk away.”
Commissioner Ted Elder, a retired school bus driver, said he saw numerous vehicles pass stopped buses when he drove in Ocean City.
Hetherington encouraged the commissioners to pass the enabling legislation, as it would take 60 days to go into effect.
“If this goes forward, we want to be ready to go at the start of the school year,” he said. “If you put off the passing of the ordinance it’s just going to push that start date 60 days farther down the road.”
Mitrecic said that by his calculations, it would take about 1,500 violations a year to cover the tech fees. Bertino said he wasn’t ready to move forward until the commissioners knew how the program would impact the sheriff’s office. Trautman said he didn’t yet have that answer.
“That is a question we need to answer ourselves before we sign a contract,” he said. “I don’t have that back yet. What I can tell you is we don’t have the support staff now to do so… We’re certainly not going to have a deputy doing something clerical like this.”
Mitrecic, referencing pay concerns shared by school bus drivers earlier this year, said bus contractors needed to be involved.
“If I owned a bus, I’d have a problem with you sticking cameras on my bus and me not getting any of the money, I’ll be honest with you,” he said.
Tolbert said the bus contractors’ association had been consulted and supported the camera program. The commissioners, citing their remaining questions about the program, voted 5-0 to table the discussion.